Pimp your iPod

Do you only use your MP3 player with headphones? David Price tests the very best kit that can make it rock the house
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The Independent Online

Do small speakers work?

Price doesn't always reflect performance, as most systems use cheap parts disguised by fancy packaging, so try before you buy. Because the signal coming out of the iPod is fairly quiet, go for "active" designs that have a stereo amplifier built in, or there's the option of a "2.1" system with a subwoofer for better bass. For best results, subs should be shoved right into room corners, and the speakers stuck down with Blu-Tac.

Best for Kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms - anywhere you want to listen to music without earphones, but can't run a proper hi-fi.

Need to know Famous brands don't necessarily mean serious quality, and the more plasticky speaker systems feel, the worse they're likely to sound. Hearing is believing, so ask for a demo. To find your nearest proper hi-fi shop, consult the British Audio Dealers Association (www.bada.co.uk/contact.html).

Best buys TDK's XA-80W (£60 from www.microdirect.co.uk) gives the best value for money of any active speaker system around. Special NXT flat-panel satellites integrate beautifully with the supplied subwoofer for a vast soundstage that's detailed from top to bottom. Audica MPS-1 (below - £250 from www.cyberselect.co.uk) is the best package outright, and there's more to them than their gorgeous, polished metal enclosures - a powerful, high-quality amplifier with three switchable inputs, FireWire and USB ports for charging digital portables and an exquisite slimline aluminium remote. So poised is it that you don't lament the lack of a subwoofer, and focus instead on a detailed sound that holds together even at very high volumes. Silky and sophisticated yet loud and proud, your iPod will love you for it.

Can I play any MP3 player through my hi-fi?

Whether it's an iPod or not, any personal stereo will sound best through a full-size hi-fi, but the way you hook it up is crucial. A simple lead like Maplin's 8270 (£3.50 from www.maplin.co.uk) gives passable results, but a proper interconnect like Chord's £45 iChord (www.chord.co.uk) pays dividends. A more elegant solution for an iPod is to sit it in a dock that will charge it and let it "talk" to your hi-fi (see "Best Buys", below), but for top quality you'll still need audio cables like Chord's Calypso (£30, www.chord.co.uk).

Best for Getting the ultimate sound from your MP3 player.

Need to know No two docks are created equal; cheaper ones offer potential but need expensive options (like power supplies and remote controls) to work best. Pricier ones bundle these, and add a pre-amplifier to beef up the iPod's signal before it hits your main amp - essential for serious sound systems.

Best buys Apple's Universal Dock (£25 from store.apple.com) is a good start, offering remote control, stereo phono sockets and video outs for iPod Videos, plus battery charging. But to get all these functions you need to buy extras, such as Apple's Remote (£20) and a power adaptor. At least integration is good - it works with most iPods and some remote facilities even run on older models. Hi-fi nuts should go for Denon's ASD-1R (£74.95 from www.hifix.co.uk), which has superior sound thanks to the built-in pre-amp and gold-plated phono sockets. A power supply for charging is provided, but the remote facilities only work with Denon systems. Well-heeled iPodders should consider Marantz's IS201 (£99.90 from www.simplyautomate.co.uk), which has a remote and superb sound quality.

How to save your music at hi-fi quality

It all began with MP3, a compression system that reduced songs to a sixth of their size on CD, but preserved most of the sound quality. Such heavy compression made the first digital portable stereos possible. Now, Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) is catching on - it takes up less space and is the format of choice for Apple's iPod. Finally, Apple Lossless is totally uncompressed and gives perfectly faithful CD sound in about half the space.

Compressed digital audio is an excruciating trade-off between sound and size. You can get many low-quality 96kbps MP3 songs into the basic iPod Shuffle, but the sound will be pretty rough. Change your iTunes settings to 320kbps and you'll get excellent sonics, but only a quarter of the songs. Move over to 192kbps AAC encoding, and the quality will be as good as 320kbps MP3, but you'll double the number of songs you can store. Move to 320kbps AAC and the quality's virtually as good as CD, but again you've lost half your songs. Ultimately, 192kbps AAC is the best compromise. Memory-starved musos shouldn't drop below 128kbps. To set iTunes compression rate, click on: Tunes/Preferences/Advanced/ Importing; Import Using: AAC Encoder;

Setting: Custom;

Stereo BitRate: 256kbps; then tick the box saying Use Variable Bit Rate

I want speakers in all rooms - without wires

Want to hear your iTunes library all around the house? Then invest in a network player that plays your iTunes music wirelessly through your home hi-fi. It's surprisingly easy to "stream" music to your hi-fi via an existing wireless network. There are various devices around, and the choice depends on your computer, your budget and how you want to use it...

Best for Getting easy access to your entire iTunes library direct from your computer.

Need to know You'll need a wireless network and a home stereo.

Best buys Apple's own Airport Express (£89 from http://store.apple.com) is a brilliant entry-level product, with easy set-up and seamless iTunes integration. It plugs into any hi-fi system with a standard patch lead or a special digital cable (for hi-fis with optical digital inputs). The supplied AirTunes software works superbly. Pay twice the price for SlimDevices Squeezebox 3 (above - £204.99 from www.broadbandstuff.co.uk) and you've got an even swisher, purpose-designed network music player. Although it doesn't integrate quite as invisibly as Airport Express, it delivers the sound better.

I just want to plug in and play

Wonderfully convenient "plug and play" music machines, these are basically big speaker boxes with amps built in, plus a dock for the iPod on top. Maybe because they come in all shapes and sizes, most people buy on looks alone - which is curious, because listening to them is what you'll be doing. Build quality is all-important, because you may be carting them around and/or docking/ undocking your iPod all the time. As ever, you get what you pay for. Good basic ones start at £50 with Ixos's XMI518 Round Sound (left) - below this you'll be reaching for the headache pills - while "power users" should expect to budget between £150 and £250 for big sound.

Best for Small rooms, portable use, indoors and outdoors; making a nice noise without the hassle of hooking your iPod up to a hi-fi or fiddling with wires.

Need to know Hooking your iPod up to your hi-fi, or even using separate active speaker systems, will give a better sound than a boom box, but if you just want to click and go, nothing comes close.

Best buys The most sophisticated sound around is Monitor Audio's iDeck (£199.95 from www.withandwithoutwires.com). Despite the lightweight build, it boasts a wonderfully balanced, full-range sound with sparkling highs and tight lows. If the lack of battery operation and middling power output means it's not for you, then consider Apple's iPod Hi-Fi (£250 from http://store.apple.com). The chunky-build, serious speaker units and barrel-chested amplifier make it a joy for loud parties, noisy bedsits and the great outdoors (it also runs on batteries). Don't expect finesse, though - the cloudy midband means it's better for Soundgarden than Schubert, and it's crude in comparison to the MA iDeck. Still, it integrates beautifully with the latest iPods, with a choice of sound settings and full remote control. It's beauty or the beast - your call.

How to build the ultimate MP3 hi-fi

Apple iPod 60Gb (£299) - the biggest iPod

Denon ASD-1R (£75) - top-quality iPod dock

Chord Company Indigo RCA (£832/m) - the ultimate stereo cable

Audio Research VSi55 (£2,895) - amplifier

Chord Company Signature (£1,150 per 5m pair) - sublime speaker cables

B&W 801D (£10,500) - speakers

The super-wealthy should aspire to this £15,000 system, kicking off with a basic Apple iPod running the best source files (ie Apple Lossless), plus a top Denon dock and Chord Indigo interconnect. Next comes Audio Research's VSi55 integrated amplifier, offering the loudest, proudest 40W ever heard. Then comes a pair of Chord Company Signature cables and B&W's 801D monitor speakers - these will get flare-flapping volumes from the amplifier, with massive bass and crystal-clear highs. At 118kg each they're not as portable as the iPod, so decorate first...

David Price is the editor of 'Hi-Fi World'